Contextual StudiesCitizen Journalism and Social Media

Now everyone is a potential journalist.

The quality of cameras in mobile phones has vastly improved over recent years (Pritchard, 2016), as has the ability to share media online through social media Karhoff, 2017). In fact, many people, especially younger people, now get their news from social media sources (Jansen, 2016).

A citizen journalist films a protest in New York
A citizen journalist films a protest in New York

The Arab Spring and the Occupy movement brought to the forefront a new type of reportage by ordinary people covering breaking stories on the ground and sharing them with the world via social media in real time.

In both these movements, people on the ground used mobile technology and social media to capture and share events. They were also used as a way to organise protests and activism free of centralised control.

This also gave activists and documenters the chance to share images and ideas that authorities might not agree with, instantly by-passing censorship and enabling free speech, sometimes in places where that would not have been so easily achieved in the past.

In the early 21st century, as smart phones with video cameras became more common and YouTube grew more popular, people could readily share their views and experiences with the wider world. These videos could be shared on Twitter and Facebook reaching a wider audience.

Arab Spring

Leading up to 2010, many Arab countries were run by authoritarian regimes who had clung to power for many years. Unrest had been growing unseen for some time as the main media outlets were state-run (Goldstein, 2012).

In December 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest harassment by the police. This fuelled wider unrest across the country which was largely ignored by the state media. The unrest was however shared via posts and videos across social media which led to more unrest across the wider Arab world (Howard and Hussain, 2013).

News agencies in the wider world were reporting on the unrest and using footage shared by protesters online. Al Jazeera was able to get stories from on the ground of the Arab Spring in real time, getting stories direct from protesters, refugees and people involved. According to Neil Leyden, head of RTÉ, it helped build “a loyal and engaged audience who felt they were now participating in the platform” (Leyden, 2017). Tunisian lawyer and activist Abdul Nasser Ouaini states, "The people of Tunisia created their own media tools with their mobile phones and small cameras. They succeeded in publicising their cause and tragedy to the entire world. Those amateur images became like a news agency supplying international channels with pictures from Tunisia." (Al Jazeera, 2011).

The Occupy Movement

The Occupy Movement grew out of what was seen as an unfair political system, where wealth and political power are held by a small privileged minority (Waters, 2011). They used mobile phone video and social networks to organise protest and to publicise what they see as in justice. Occupy protesters shared many videos online of peaceful protesters being met with what many would see as police brutality (Balko, 2011). The growth of support and momentum the movement gained was certainly pushed by the use of mobile video and social media (Wyer, 2012). Citizen journalists such as Tim Pool used streaming sites to share live video of protests. Pool streamed a 21 hour live broadcast of a police raid on Occupy protesters in November 2011 on his Ustream channel. The footage went viral and was broadcast on news networks around the world (Fox, 2011).

Civil Rights

In the United States, we’ve seen a number of stories in recent years about the use of excessive force and violence against African-Americans. The high profile cases of the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of the police caused an outcry. In the case of Eric Garner, video shot by a bystander on a mobile phone and shared online showed police using force on an unarmed black man that led to his death. While it may seem like this type of violence is on the rise, some argue that this is something that has been happening for a long time but is only now being exposed through the use of mobile phones and social media (McLaughlin, 2015).

In 2008, Sepideh Farsi wanted to film the mood on the streets of Iranian capital Tehran leading up to the presidential elections of 2009. Government restrictions meant she was not given permission to film. Despite the restrictions, Farsi wanted to share this story and decided to film with her Nokia camera phone (BAMPFA, 2009). She knew that anything larger than her phone would be too conspicuous and draw attention and lead to greater risks while filming. She recorded conversations with ordinary people in Tehran which she edited into the highly praised documentary ‘Tehran Without Permission’ (Delaney, 2012).


In many of these cases, mobile videos and citizen journalists are shedding light on problems that already existed but were not being shared through traditional news sources.